PROVO — Soon after the final seconds slipped off the clock and BYU had secured a 31-21 victory over Colorado State late Saturday night, players and coaches lingered on the field at Hughes Stadium.
Before heading to the locker room, they acknowledged the contingent of cheering BYU fans in the stands. The Cougars soaked up the sweet feeling of a road win in their conference-opener over an opponent that had humiliated them, 58-13, a year ago in Provo. Only one week earlier, they had suffered a gut-wrenching, last-minute loss at Boise State. This time, there were plenty of hugs and smiles all around and a general feeling of relief.
Yeah, the Cougars (2-3 overall, 1-0 in the Mountain West Conference) celebrated.
Can you blame them?
Mired in a three-game losing streak entering the game, BYU was desperate for a victory. In the same place, Fort Collins, where coach Gary Crowton played for CSU 27 years ago, perhaps his team turned its season around. At least that's what he's hoping.
"I'm very encouraged by where we're at," said Crowton, whose postgame interview session outside the locker room was interrupted a few times by well-wishers, both inside and outside the program, who congratulated him. "I feel like we can get a lot better."
Just how big was this win?
"Huge," said quarterback John Beck. "It gives us so much confidence going into the Mountain West.
It's so great to start out on the right foot, to win (at CSU). I just think as an entire team, we definitely depended on each other. The offense depended on the defense to hold them, and the defense depended on us to put points on the board. When you want to have a good year, that's what you have to have."
Now the Cougars have four of their next five games at home, beginning Friday night against UNLV. They need four more victories to ensure a winning season and become bowl eligible. It's possible—if BYU can keep getting good performances from its offense, defense and special teams, as it did against Colorado State.
"I felt like we played well as a team overall," Crowton said. "It was such a team victory."
Offensively, the Cougars were balanced for the first time this season, gaining 207 on the ground and 238 through the air, despite the fact several players were sick, according to Beck. "Half the offense had food poisoning," he said. "We had offensive linemen dry-heaving in the huddle, I was dry-heaving in the huddle. Those O-linemen fought through it. The O-line was what helped our offense win."
The last couple of weeks, it appeared the Cougars were gradually improving, but they had little to show for it. "We didn't really know where we were at. We knew we were getting better, but we didn't know how good," said running back Curtis Brown, who carried 15 times for 93 yards and two touchdowns. "We had a tough pre-season. But coming into conference, these teams aren't as tough as our preseason. We just know we're going to get better."
"This team wants to win bad. That's the best thing about us right now," Beck said. "We had a fire to win. We have to keep that fire. We just want to keep rolling. One thing we can't do is lose our fire."
BYU's defense surrendered a slew of big plays as CSU wide receiver David Anderson shredded the secondary to the tune of 12 catches for 232 yards and a touchdown. The Rams racked up 462 yards of total offense and averaged seven yards per play. But defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall said the most important numbers were the ones on the scoreboard.
"When we had to stop them, we did, and we won the football game. That's the bottom line," Mendenhall said. "Wins are hard to come by."
Nobody knows that like the Cougars.